Planet Duke: Classic digs go digital

March 14, 2016

The only signs of the splendor that was Vulci, Italy, are the network of tombs, the abandoned foundation of a grand temple, and the ruins that now dot the fields of swaying grass.

Students in classical studies professor Maurizio Forte’s archaeology courses don’t have to imagine what this once-great Etruscan city looked like at its peak in the sixth century BCE. They can walk right into it in virtual reality.

These students, and those working on interdisciplinary teams funded by a Bass Connections grant, collaborate with professors from fields as diverse as brain science and art history on digital excavations—and use today’s technology to create 3D images of the ancient structures.

“Duke is great at not separating art and science,” says Forte, who spends summers with students conducting fieldwork in Vulci and on the completely paperless “digital dig” of a Neolithic dwelling at Çatalhöyük, in Turkey. Their work combines art and history with fields such as cybernetics and cognitive science, and is housed in Duke’s Dig@Lab, which Forte founded and directs.

“I love to see this space of knowledge we shape and reshape as an open platform where young minds contribute,” he says. “I’ve seen students before and after, and they are really different people and better people for their careers.”

The team that traveled to Vulci last summer used classical techniques of archaeological prospection, then applied tools such as ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry, and drone photography to create a trove of data and pictures. One of those students, Pratt senior Emmanuel Shiferaw, also wrote part of the computer code that turns 3D models of multisource field data into interactive worlds that call to mind life-sized video games.

“I think the past is one of the things that fascinates people the most—the past and the future,” says Shiferaw. It makes sense to him that archaeologists, who deal with the past, would be early adopters of modern technologies that allow them to excavate without disturbing sites or delicate artifacts. Digital formats create the possibility for instant collaboration worldwide.

A student looking through a virtual-reality headset in the lab would see Vulci’s temple spring to life. In the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment, a six-sided cave-like space, one can step into the Neolithic dwelling at Çatalhöyük.

“This new way of looking at it just gives you new ideas,” says Katherine McCusker, a Ph.D. student in Art, Art History & Visual Studies, who helped excavate at Vulci last summer. “It’s kind of like you’ve been looking at a puzzle from one direction and haven’t been able to put it together, and one day you look at it upside down and realize there are new patterns.”

The team continues to make new discoveries: McCusker led GPS and Geographic Information System work at Vulci that may have revealed previously unknown public buildings and Roman baths. Forte says the next frontier might expand the data to include multisensory information, such as sound and temperature, that could make the simulated past feel even more present.

“No one has tried before, so we might fail,” he says. “We might be too early. But we like the challenge to do the impossible.”